This year, the UK student refugee charity STAR is celebrating 25 years of activism, support and outreach to refugees, doing its part to make the country more welcoming for those forced to flee and helping young displaced adults realise their potential through further education.
STAR, or Student Action for Refugees, is a national charity of 34,000 students spread across 50 groups at UK universities and colleges. Members volunteer locally, and campaign and advocate to improve the inclusion and welfare of refugees and asylum-seekers.
People seeking refuge in the UK do not have equal access to university; most are classed as international students which means they are charged higher fees. Many cannot get student loans and do not have the right to work to earn money to pay their fees and living costs.
To address that, STAR launched its Equal Access campaign more than a decade ago, aiming to ensure those seeking international protection in the UK can join universities as equals, primarily through new creating scholarships. The campaign is bearing fruit. Over 70 UK universities now offer scholarships or bursaries to help refugees and asylum-seekers access higher education.
“When I was a kid I longed for the day when I could study engineering at university,” said Shrouk Al-Attar, a STAR Trustee, belly-dancer and refugee. “When I realised I wouldn’t be able to because I was an asylum seeker, I was shattered. That’s why I started campaigning for equal access to higher education.”
STAR also offers information and resources to prospective students — its list of UK scholarships has been viewed by over 20,000 people. It supports access courses and has developed a programme of open days from which many have benefitted. It has also supported successful legal challenges to improve access for people with humanitarian protection after their appeals had exhausted.
STAR works in the UK – its establishment here was supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Refugee Council – but is part of a global push to improve access to secondary and tertiary education for refugees. Progress in that would help to shield them from abuses like forced recruitment into armed groups, child labour, sexual exploitation and child marriage. It would also help close the gap between learning and earning and bolster community resilience, which are central objectives of the UN Global Compact on Refugees, agreed in late 2018 to enhance refugee self-reliance and better support hosts and increase chances of reintegration if and when return is possible.
Currently, only 3% of refugees globally have access to higher education. UNHCR and partners have committed to ensuring that 15% of young refugees can access the benefits of higher education by 2030, known as the “15by30” target; a network of organisations are developing a roadmap to support progress to “15by30.” It aims to build on existing programs like the DAFI scholarships.
At last year’s Global Refugee Forum, which garnered pledges and commitments related to the Compact including around education and livelihoods, STAR was instrumental in developing a joint pledge by 40 UK universities and higher education organisations to better access for refugees in the UK.
“STAR has advocated tirelessly for expanded access to higher education for refugee students,” said Maren Kroeger, an education officer at UNHCR. “Its work in the Global Refugee Forum was testament to the value that STAR brings to the global partnership to achieve 15by30.”
Back in the UK, STAR also works with over 45 refugee charities at 90 projects providing much needed assistance, including English conversation clubs, drop-ins where food and friendship are shared and homework clubs, where undergraduates pass on study skills to young refugees at local schools.
Like other groups helping refugees in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, these activities have had to adapt.
“We had to move our conversation clubs online but the team has been busy,” said Eve McKeown, president of the STAR chapter at Warwick University. “We’ve been practicing English directly, posting videos to help with daily tasks like transport and shopping, and sharing guidelines and safety information in different languages.”
Like so many others, the group is keen to get back working face to face in the community — when social distancing requirements allow.